If you think of climate change as a hazard for some far-off polar bears years from now, you’re mistaken. That’s the message from top climate scientists gathering in Japan this week to assess the impact of global warming.
In fact, they will say, the dangers of a warming Earth are immediate and very human.
The polar bear is us, says Patricia Romero Lankao of the federally financed National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.
She will be among the more than 60 scientists in Japan to finish writing a massive and authoritative report on the effects of global warming. With representatives from about 100 governments at this week’s meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, they’ll wrap up a summary that tells world leaders how bad the problem is.
The key message from leaked drafts and interviews with the authors and other scientists: The big risks and overall effects of global warming are far more immediate and local than scientists once thought.
It’s not just about melting ice, threatened animals and plants. It’s about the human problems of hunger, disease, drought, flooding, refugees and war becoming worse.
The report says scientists have already observed many changes from warming, such as an increase in heat waves in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia.
Severe floods, such as the one that displaced 90,000 people in Mozambique in 2008, are now more common in Africa and Australia. Europe and North America are getting more intense downpours that can be damaging.
Melting ice in the Arctic is not only affecting the polar bear but also changing the culture and livelihoods of indigenous people in northern Canada.
Climate change really is a challenge in managing risks, says the report’s chief author, Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution of Science in California. It’s very clear that we are not prepared for the kind of events we’re seeing.
If climate change continues, the panel’s larger report predicts these harms:
FOOD: Global food prices will rise between 3 percent and 84 percent by 2050 because of warmer temperatures and changes in rain patterns. Hotspots of hunger may emerge in cities.
WATER: About one-third of the world’s population will see groundwater supplies drop by more than 10 percent by 2080, when compared with 1980 levels.
HEALTH: Major increases in health problems are likely, with more illnesses and injury from heat waves and fires and more food and water-borne diseases. But the report also notes that warming’s effect on health is relatively small compared with other problems, like poverty.
WEALTH: Many of the poor will get poorer. Economic growth and poverty reduction will slow down. If temperatures rise high enough, the world’s overall income may start to go down.
VIOLENCE: For the first time, the panel is emphasizing the nuanced link between conflict and warming temperatures. Participating scientists say warming won’t cause wars, but it will add a destabilizing factor that will make existing threats worse.
Texas Tech University climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who was not part of the report team, says the important nuance is how climate change interacts with other human problems: It’s interacting (with) and exacerbating problems we already have today.
University of Colorado science policy professor Roger Pielke Jr., a past critic of the panel’s impact reports, said after reading the draft summary, it’s a lot of important work They made vast improvements to the quality of their assessments.
Another critic, University of Alabama Huntsville professor John Christy, accepts that man-made global warming is occurring but thinks its risks are overblown when compared with something like poverty. Climate change is not among the developing world’s main problems, he says.
And yet, earlier this month, the world’s largest scientific organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, published a new fact sheet on global warming that says, More heat waves, greater sea level rise and other changes with consequences for human health, natural ecosystems and agriculture are already occurring in the United States and worldwide.
Texas Tech’s Hayhoe says scientists in the past may have created the impression that the main reason to care about climate change was its impact on the environment.
We care about it because it’s going to affect nearly every aspect of human life on this planet, she says.